For 15 years, state wildlife officials have struggled to come up with the best way to declare certain Florida species to be in danger of going extinct and thus in need of protection.
Every attempt has resulted in controversy and, at one point, threats from the Legislature to cut the agency's funding. The issue has consumed more of the state wildlife commission's time than almost any other. But on Sept. 1, the commissioners will vote on a new system that will mark the biggest change in a decade.
"This time we think we're there," said Elsa Haubold of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
However, a hunters group remains concerned that the new system could be "a potential disaster for anyone who hikes, hunts, fishes," or travels across public parkland for any other reason, said Newton Cook, executive director of United Waterfowlers of Florida.
Now, the state classifies plants and animals that are imperiled as "endangered," "threatened" or, on the lowest rung of the ladder, "species of special concern." Not every animal that's on the federal government's endangered list is on the state's list, and vice versa. The Miami blue butterfly, for instance, is listed as endangered by Florida but not listed at all by the federal government.
"It's been a source of a lot of confusion," said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
A species' status grants it different levels of legal consideration from local governments. A project that might hurt an endangered species would face more hurdles in getting a zoning change from city or county officials than one that might hurt a threatened species or a species of special concern.
Then there's the money. According to a study by the Florida Ornithological Society, animals on the state's endangered list tended to get three to five times as much tax money as other species. The endangered few stood first in line for state funds in scientific research and for the purchase of habitat.
The proposal the commission will vote on in two weeks calls for simply adopting wholesale the entire federal list of endangered and threatened species. Then the state would classify anything else that's now on the state list as "threatened."
The proposal is drawing support — or at least acceptance — from the state's environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club, Audubon of Florida and Defenders of Wildlife. In the past those groups have repeatedly criticized the current system.
"It will be good to put this behind us," Fuller said.
Until 1995, the state's own biologists picked what species belonged on the list and that was that. But when they decided to classify the white ibis as threatened, it caused an uproar. Most of the state's white ibis population lives on private property, particularly cattle ranches.
Cattlemen protested, fearing local and state restrictions on how they used their land. State senators attempted to slash the agency's funding and warned that saving the ibis would ruin the state's economy.
No ibis-related disaster befell Florida, but the commission was so rattled it decided to rewrite rules for adding endangered species. At the time, the staff did not want to use the same definitions that federal officials follow, contending that those definitions were too vague.
So they came up with a new listing process that said an endangered species was one that had lost at least 80 percent of its population during the past 10 years. That was such a high standard that not even the Florida panther — only 100 remain, but that's an increase over the previous decade — would qualify.
Meanwhile the system did little to protect the wildlife on the lowest rung, the species of special concern. Gopher tortoises were listed that way, and for 16 years, the state's wildlife agency issued permits allowing developers to bury them alive, suffocating them and all the other animals that use their burrows as a home.
The controversy boiled over in 2006, when wildlife commissioners cast a preliminary vote to lower manatees from endangered status to threatened, even though the species remained endangered on the federal list. A coalition of 17 environmental and animal welfare groups formally challenged that process, although the commission rejected the challenge.
Ultimately even Gov. Charlie Crist weighed in to oppose the move.
In 2007 the commissioners backpedaled. They dropped plans to reclassify the manatee, and ordered their staff to take yet another crack at fixing the species listing system.
For the next three years, "there was a lot of discussion," Haubold said. At the beginning, the commission's executive director, general counsel and three division directors "met every other week for four hours for six months," she said, and then there were 15 meetings with activists involved in the issue.
Haubold concedes that the wholesale adoption of the federal endangered list will result in some anomalies. For instance, brown pelicans had improved enough that they were just removed from the federal list (prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which apparently has killed hundreds of them), but they will still be listed by the state as "threatened."
To Haubold, the big improvement in the new system is that it calls for writing management plans for every species on the state's list. The plans would cover everything from development permitting to future research needs.
However, another section of the proposal has hunters concerned. It calls for adopting the federal definition for what constitutes illegal "take" of a species. Unlike the state, the federal term includes not just killing or maiming an animal but also annoying or harassing it.
So if a hunter tries to scare a Florida black bear away from a deer feeder using firecrackers, "they are definitely annoying that bear," Cook warned. By the same token, he contended, hunters and hikers who pass near where sandhill cranes are feeding and prompt them to fly away may also be accused of "taking" the species which "subjects you to a violation charge and a ticket."
In response, Haubold said, "we've included some intent language (in the rules) to say that we did not intend to include lawful hunting and fishing" as harassing behavior. Nevertheless, she said, concerns persist, "but some of it has to do with this fear of the unknown."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.